Thursday, November 19, 2009


When starting to read this article I was ambivalent at first - I'm skeptical of modern psychology, but I also know they're not all bad. I certainly don't know enough to make a definitive statement, but my understanding is that a fair proportion of psychological problems arise from bad methods of thought and bad content. For all I know, Dr Seligman might have had legitimate improvements on these to offer soldiers. He is certainly quite right to connect the phenomenon in soldiers with the same for everyone and connect it to the broader question of how we approach life as such and deal with problems in it.

But then I read this:

The third key to happiness was to lead a meaningful life, ''knowing what your highest strengths are and then using them to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self''
It's not much to go on, but that's pretty damning right there. While other parts of the technical content may well lead to better methdology and some success in life as a result, by implicitly improving a soldier's sense of life by improving his mental efficacy, this particular content will eventually prove destructive, and in a number of ways.

The most obvious is that this is setting up a soldier for a clash between his actual needs and what he is taught to believe he needs. This wont necessarily be in a man's capacity as a soldier, but it could be outside that part of his life and occur considerably later. Sooner or later, and depending on what else the anti-self content is connected with, the denial of the interests of self are going to cause pain, and his being taught this anti-self rubbish will make it difficult for him to pinpoint the causes or take the proper action. If he connects it with the old-school protestant work-ethic and the ideal of intelligent-faith the clash isn't likely to be that great because that general line of thought is based on reinterpreting religious teachings to be more practical without straining textual interpretation beyond breaking point. Still, depending on how diligent a thinker he is versus taking a given pragmatic interpretation and running with it, he could still be due for major problems as he sides more and more strongly with religious belief. It will be even worse for him if, instead of following the rationalisations for selfishness bound up with the protestant-work-ethic, he follows a creed that is far more explicitly anti-self both in principle and in its concrete admonitions.

What's more worrying is what happens when more thoughtful soldiers read between the lines and then apply their findings both to themselves and each other - and, precisely because it connects it to life in the world at large, how they will also apply those findings to non-soldiers. That between-the-lines finding is that if one is suffering from PTSD or other mental problems then to some degree the victim is at fault for being too selfish. Objectivists will have seen this before - hands up those who remember Toohey's counselling of Katie (Part 2, Chapter 13). Even if Dr Seligman expressly disavows that reading (which is not stated either way in the article) you can be sure that quite a number of soldiers are going to draw that conclusion in spite of any such protestations to the contrary because it will fit with their self-sacrificial world-view. Any protestations that Dr Seligman might make will be worthless, just as Kant's protestations about being a freedom-lover were worthless, because the blame-selfishness theme is inherent in his whole approach. A psychologist should know better - and a rational one would have seen this a mile away.

This one differs from the obvious point first mentioned in that this is at a far more express intellectual level (though clearly the two are interlinked), which will make the problem much worse for a soldier. If a soldier does expressly apply it to himself then along with the intent to reduce incidences of PTSD etc he is apt to berate himself for moral faults. This will bring the aforementioned clash between his needs and what he is taught to a head far quicker and far harder than if he didn't expressly draw such a conclusion. He will go for longer before seeking help, and out of a sense of shame do what he can to hide his true state of mind until he ends up in a state far worse than he would be without Dr Toohey's Seligman's teachings.

What's worrying for the longer term, and for the culture at large, is what happens when soldiers start applying it to each other and to non-soldiers. In part it ties back to the previous point about self-appliance, through the obvious mechanism of soldiers seeing that others will blame them to some degree for their problems. In addition to him forecasting it being done, you can be sure that someone will say it out loud and that some of those who hear that someone are going to believe it and internalise it. The result is a more brittle army, further avoidance of the real causes of mental problems (which, beyond lack of clear purpose for military action and, indeed, a lack of good thinking and valuation skills as Dr Seligman does point out, I have no qualifications to guess at), and most worrying of all a deeper entrenchment of anti-selfishness worldviews by providing people with what they will hold as more concrete evidence of why selfishness is evil. Since man is by nature an integrating being, and the prevalence of religion among soldiers, it is going to be integrated into their religious worldview and make selfishness even harder to get across because their worldview will have more "scientific" backing. That alleged claim of man's psychological need to value something greater than oneself predates Dr Seligman by long shot, and his ideas will be further fuel for that.

Whether Dr Seligman is aware of it or not, a part of his ideas are thoroughly evil and will have destructive effects for individual soldiers, the military as such, and the culture at large, not despite his other otherwise good points about integration with the rest of life but because of that emphasis on integration. For the military itself, the US military needs to shut his project down ASAP and engage the services of rational philosophers and psychologists to deal with soldiers' mental problems. For the rest of us, we need to pressure our legislators to pressure military authorities to do just that.


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